Sociologist W.I. Thomas (1863-1947)
December 21st 2012. The date looms, the new era beckons. For a vast number of people spread around the globe this is a significant date signalling the beginning of the end. End of the world narratives are not uncommon in our collective imagination – indeed, the apocalypse has been speculated over for millennia. From Judgement day to astronomical predictions of destruction people have been fascinated by humanity’s annihilation. Human history has witnessed numerous periods of mass hysteria caused by a collective belief that everything as we know it will end. During the early period of the Spanish Conquest as the result of popular astrological predictions in Europe people feared that a second Great Flood would wipe away their civilisation in 1524. In living memory we remember the hype surrounding the ‘millennium bug’ when our computers would cease to work and we would be plunged into a new dark age.
In modern times however, the phenomenon is uniquely prevalent and potent because it can reach an unprecedented amount of people. There is little doubt that “2012”’s reach and impact would not have been so widespread if we didn’t have the web which has enabled this belief to span the globe. Thousands of websites are dedicated to ‘revealing the mystery’, with suggestions of what will occur and ‘what to do next’. It’s hard to gauge the public reaction to all this material but a poll by Ipsos of 16,000 adults in 21 countries found that an average of 8 per cent had experienced fear or anxiety over the possibility of the world ending in December 2012, with a response as high as 20 per cent in China.
Everyday NASA’s website receives hundreds of enquiries about 2012 asking them to dispel the anxiety, to persuade them that all will be well. Some queries are decidedly dark as concerned parents and animal lovers wonder if they should save their children or pets from a potentially catastrophic and violent death by doing it themselves in a peaceful and stealthy way! So far there have been a few suicides directly related to the prophecy.
Being able to access such a wealth of information has had a profound effect on our outlook. The Internet is the closest version of a common consciousness as exists. It has the power not only to generate but also to harness the collective imagination. On the other hand it has the power to misinform and rattle cages and misinterpreted information can rile people to extreme thought and behaviour.
The user-led element of the Internet is the reason why so much ‘propaganda’ about 2012 exists; it is a bastion of free speech doesn’t determine what should be listened to. The wealth of information is staggering: type ‘2012 prophecy’ and Google search returns almost 100 million results – and this by no means an unusual figure for a two-word search term. People can create whatever information they want, free from censors and beamed around a global network.
The open source nature of the internet and its ability to provide access to information, instantly, no matter the locale, has undoubtedly inflamed a 2012 hype culture. And on that hype – on the back of those fears of impending doom – a vast industry has been built. Property developers have practically sold out of converted bunkers and missile silos. ‘Preppers’, a term used to describe people who have taken preparation for Armageddon seriously, have single-handedly caused a surge in the sale of long-life products, often canned food with a shelf life of thirty years. Some of them have become so adept they even sell their advice to others. Even Hollywood capitalised on the global hype, of course, with the disaster film ‘2012’.
In an information society enough people can connect to ideas in spite of the preoccupations of national media, social groups and cultural boundaries. And so 2012 prophecies extend from being the preserve of the fanatical to reach and influence the mainstream.
It’s hard to know how many people will act directly on the basis of their 2012 beliefs. This prophecy, however, is being played out against the background of the continuing conditions of economic instability, political fallacy and environmental deterioration. These have accrued to create a sense of anxiety which can all-too-readily attach itself to other concerns.
Anthony Aveni an American anthropologist states the “2012 narrative is a product of a ‘disconnected’ society unable to find spiritual answers to life’s big questions within ourselves, we turn outward to imagined entities that lie far off in space or time that just might possess superior knowledge”. Being ‘disconnected’ in the most ‘connected’ era of human life is an anomaly I’d like to further explore but it doesn’t explain why end of the world narratives become so popular in common thought. It seems unlikely we will ever quench our thirst for the sensational, morbid and probably misguided excitement stimulated by these kinds of prospected events.